Shalom and Namaste: Jewish Volunteers See a Different Side of Nepal

Nurit Wurgaft
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Nurit Wurgaft

"Namaste," the Nepali youngster said to his compatriot, Priya Sharam Chitrakar, who was sitting on a bench in South Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park, next to two young Israelis. The three had been going over a document detailing workers' rights, which they translated into Nepali. Chitrakar was correcting spelling mistakes and grammatical errors.

"Namaste," the three replied. Then one of the Israelis asked the youth, in Nepali, what his name was. Ram Krishna, he answered in surprise, looking in bewilderment at Chitrakar and her two companions.

"You must have thought there were no Israelis who speak Nepali," she laughed. "At first it surprised me, too, because I have never heard foreigners speak my language. Now I am used to it."

The two Nepali-speaking Israelis are graduates of a unique course organized by an NGO called Tevel b'Tzedek (The World With Justice). They spent four months in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, where they studied Nepali, familiarized themselves with local aid organizations, learned about the effects of globalization on Nepal's economy, environment and society - and combined the entire experience with studies in Judaism, focusing on the idea of tikkun olam ("repairing the world"). In addition, they also volunteered on behalf of several environmental and social welfare-oriented projects.

The idea behind the program was to offer an alternative to the usual post-army trip, says founder Micha Odenheimer: "I figured that among all the Israelis who travel to Nepal, there might be some who don't want to relate to the place as just one big amusement park, where they can do bungee-jumping, rafting and mountain climbing, and see all sorts of tourist attractions."

Odenheimer, 50, is an ordained Orthodox rabbi who works as a teacher and a journalist. In setting up the program, his aim was not to turn participants into observant Jews: Indeed, most participants are as secular when they finish as when they enroll and that's fine by him.

"I was particularly interested in reminding people that Judaism is not just a matter of dietary laws and the Sabbath," he says. "It is also a whole world of social norms and a vision of social justice."

Aya Navon, 28, a secular woman who attended one of Tevel b'Tzedek's first courses and is now director of the organization, notes that, "You learn to appreciate the Sabbath in a place where there is no law requiring employers to give their workers a weekly day of rest. There are people in Nepal who, except for holidays and a few days of leave a year, work day after day, every day of their lives, until they cannot go on any longer or until they die."

Navon recruited participants for the first course by email and through notes posted on bulletin boards, both in Israel and abroad. Gera Tsalihin, 25, arrived straight from India, after seeing such a notice in one of the guest houses where he stayed.

"I was looking for a way to travel and at the same time also get to know the people - a place that would provide me with the opportunity to do voluntary work. The course intrigued me," he says.

Upon returning to Israel after the course, Tsalihin and his friends contacted the growing number of Nepali who work in Israel in agriculture and nursing. They met a Nepali dance group that performed in Levinsky Park to try and raise money for the community. During one of the performances, the NGOs' members joined the musicians. Once the group's members overcame their shock, they invited the Israelis to a party afterward.

Since then the Israelis have become a permanent fixture - as friends, partners and volunteers in organizations that help migrant workers. Because most Nepali migrant workers in the country are women, Tevel b'Tzedek has organized a study group on women's rights, under the auspices of the Mesila Aid and Information Center for the Foreign Community in Tel Aviv. In the wake of this course, participants have founded an organization called Kol Ha'isha Hanepalit (The Voice of the Nepali Woman). Last month, members of this group attended a lecture about sexual harassment, with the Israeli volunteers translating when necessary.

"Sometimes there are incidents of harassment during our work, and many women do not know it is forbidden," says Chitrakar. "In Nepal it is forbidden as well, but people do not take it seriously."

Notes Laxmi Giri, 32, chairwoman of the Nepali women's group: "One of the problems is that Nepali women are very shy. Usually they will say nothing, even if someone takes advantage of them and behaves badly toward them."

Giri has lived in Israel for five years, speaks surprisingly good Hebrew and uses her knowledge and capabilities to help her countrywomen. "They tell me things they do not tell others and when I call and tell employers, 'Shalom, I am a volunteer with the Mesila aid organization,' they listen to me."

Tsalihin blames the Israeli government for failing to enforce the legal prohibition on levying a service charge for visas. The commissions that Nepali middlemen collect for arranging visas range from $8,000 to $10,000, he says. "Such a situation virtually constitutes a type of slavery and also provides fertile ground for abuse. Until they repay the loans, the women are scared to complain about anything; anyone can take advantage of them and do whatever he wants."

Among other things, Tevel b'Tzedek arranges monthly outings. After they gathered for the lecture last month, the women passed around photos taken a week earlier during a trip to Tiberias and Lake Kinneret. "Nepali men also come and so we get to know the country and one another," Chitrakar says.

The groups Israeli volunteers also participate in Nepali celebrations and occasionally in other social gatherings, too. About a month ago they all met at Jerusalem's Sacher Park, both men and women, to mark the opening of a branch of the women's organization in the capital. Giri addressed the group, while Tsalihin and Navon translated for the Israelis. Some Israeli women wore traditional Nepali garb for the event, although most Nepali showed up in jeans and T-shirts. Said one participant, "Each one loves what is new for him."